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Conference Preliminaries: The Trinity Site Visit
   — by Christina Aragona, SPS Reporter


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The 2004 Sigma Pi Sigma National Congress began on Thursday, October 14th with a truly special event: a visit to the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated. The four buses which transported participants to the site began boarding at 6:30 am, with departure at 7:00am. In the predawn darkness, society members began to gather around a table in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Albuquerque, in order to pick up their nametags before finding the appropriate bus. The early morning air was chill as people began exiting the hotel and choosing seats on the busses. One of the first to board the bus I would be taking, I shivered slightly, and wondered with anticipation what the day would bring.

Aboard a bus bound for the Trinity Site VIsitA movie entitled “The Day After Trinity” was played on each bus, describing the story of the bomb’s creation. Unfortunately, technical difficulties interfered on our bus. We began to have some misgivings about the functionality of the bus’s televisions when we noticed that a clothespin was firmly taped in the middle of one screen. In the end, the sound system proved to be the problem. Without audible dialogue, the movie was impossible to follow, and the bus passengers were left to their own thoughts. We were able to attend an evening screening of "The Day After Trinity" at the hotel following the trip, however.

The skies began to lighten with the first hints of dawn, and as the orange-glowing disk of the sun slowly rose above the horizon, a white mist began gather. Soon the bus was engulfed and the surrounding landscape obscured. My mind was left to wander, and soon turned to what I knew of the atomic bomb.

In high school, I had been shown videos describing the events leading up to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the horrible aftermath that had ensued. For contrast I had Feynman’s accounts of his days at Los Alamos and the reaction of the scientists who had worked so diligently on the Manhattan project upon witnessing the fruits of their labor. The bomb’s significance in the course of history is recognized by all, and the appropriateness of its use still, at times, debated. We have heard of the bomb’s awesome power and witnessed its explosion on a television set. Yet, the reality of it can seem distant from the lives of most Americans. What would it be like to stand in the actual place where the first atomic bomb was detonated, and in the house where it was assembled?

Entering the White Sands Missile Range.Eventually, I abandoned my musings and, like many of my fellow bus mates, succumbed to the desire to sleep. Before long, we had arrived at the White Sands Missile Range, on which the Trinity site was located. As the missile range is currently in operation, the Trinity Site can only be visited on days when there is no testing scheduled. At the entrance, officials from the base confirmed that no testing would take place during the time of our visit. The buses then followed the official’s car across the wide expanse of the base towards our destination. The White Sands Missile Range is located on a large flat stretch of land covered in small shrubs. In the distance, one can see a range of mountains surrounding the wide plain. The Trinity site is situated within this great emptiness.

When we entered the base, each person was given a booklet on the Trinity Site with a short history of the bomb’s creation and detonation. The very beginning of the booklet held some interesting information on the current radiation at the site: a person is exposed to more radiation on a commercial cross country flight than through spending an hour at the Trinity Site’s ground zero. The book went on to describe the experiences of those working at the site, a general account of the theory behind the bomb, and a description of the process of building and testing the first bomb. The final steps of the bomb’s fabrication took place the MacDonald Ranch House, which we would visit later in our trip, located a mere two miles from the ground zero site.

Marker sits at ground zero at the Trinity Site VIsitVisiting the actual site was, in some ways, a slightly surreal experience. The flat expanse of land stretches out over vast distances, covered with small shrubs and bearing few features to serve as landmarks. A clear blue sky stretched from horizon to horizon, lending the day an almost peaceful atmosphere.

The original atomic bomb was detonated atop a tower, which was completely destroyed in the blast. At the center of where this tower once stood, a narrow pyramid of black stones bears a plaque to mark the site. To one side of this pillar, a few small stubs of metal embedded in a rock are all that remain of the tower on which the bomb was placed before detonation. The area of the desert around the site is fenced in, to prevent visitors from wandering too far off and losing themselves in the missile range. On the far side of the fence, a line of photographs are hung with images of the bomb’s detonation and the people whose leadership and hard work had made the bomb a reality.

The first atomic bomb had left in its wake a large shallow crater no more than eight feet deep, and within this crater, the desert floor had been melted into green glass. This glass, called Trinitite, was initially highly radioactive, and as a result, much of it was removed. Some pieces were taken by scientists who had visited the sight shortly after the explosion, and are still occasionally turning up to this day. Small pebbles of Trinitite scattered sparsely in the ground are almost all that remain of the substance at the actual site. Today, this glass is no longer unusually radioactive, and the last remnant of the original sheet is buried under a protective layer of sand, housed under a long, low metal shed.

Dr. Worth Seagondollar, a past president of Simga Pi Sigma, speaks about witnessing the Trinity test blast.Upon arriving at the site, the White Sands Missile Range officials spoke briefly about the history, and Dr. Tom Olsen, the Sigma Pi Sigma Historian, gave a brief welcome to the visitors. Then, we had the unique experience of hearing Dr. Worth Seagondollar speak at the site where the blast had occurred almost sixty years before. Dr. Seagondollar had been a member of a team running tests on the Plutonium to be used in the bomb, and had witnessed the first bomb’s detonation. He spoke of how work on the Manhattan project was considered a valuable and unique opportunity for young scientists, as they would be working in the vicinity of some of the most prominent physicist of the day. He recounted some of his experiences on the site prior to the bomb’s detonation and after the explosion. Hearing the story firsthand of a man who had worked on the project seemed to bridge the gap between past and present, and emphasize the historical significance of where we were standing.

After Dr. Seagondollar finished speaking, the crowd dispersed to view the site and ask questions of the guides from the missile base. After an hour, we again boarded the busses and proceeded to the McDonald Ranch house, a mere two miles away. A room of this house had been turned into a makeshift clean room in which the final steps of the assembly of the bomb’s devices were carried out. The house itself is an unprepossessing, one-story, square building with a small porch at the front entrance. The door frame still bears painted messages to wipe one’s feet before entering, remnants from the days when the house contained the clean room. Inside the rooms of the house are a series of images and written documents detailing the house’s history. Outside, one can see the water tank were those who worked at the site would swim during the summer.

The McDonald Ranch Site, where the plutonium core was assembled.After we had spending some time at the McDonald’s Ranch site, two of the buses departed for the Owl Café for lunch, while the remaining two buses took their passengers to visit a nearby nature preserve. At the Owl Café, the trip attendees enjoyed chili cheeseburgers and each other’s company for lunch. Afterwards, some of the students on the trip wandered off and managed to find ice cream before boarding the buses for the final time. At 1:45, the buses departed the Owl Café for the Hilton. The trip was truly a unique experience. As the White Sands Missile Range is an active facility, the Trinity site is only open to visitors twice a year, in April and October.

The stories of the Manhattan project provide a unique look into a group of scientists working towards a common goal: to help defend their country in the midst of war. Yet they were also driven by a desire to discover the possibilities of new technology and the solution to a pressing problem. The Sigma Pi Sigma and SPS members who attended this trip had the exiting experience of witnessing an important piece of scientific and American history first hand.

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Note: Facts concerning the site were taken from the “Trinity Site” booklet provided on the tour.


Sigma Pi Sigma kicks-off the World Year of Physics 2005

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